In Part 1 of this series, I explained how in the Islamic worldview the success of forming a new habit depends on the state of the heart. By keeping the heart clean from vices and full of remembrance of Allah , it is in man’s nature to change his actions for the better.
In this part, I will explain habit formation from the perspective of Western science and how we can utilize this knowledge to help us build our habits.
The Role of Basal Ganglia
In the 1990s, several researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences began looking into a part of the brain close to where it meets the spinal column: the basal ganglia. They made initial observations that animals with injured basal ganglia tended to have problems with tasks such as learning how to run through mazes, while they had no problem doing so previously.
They then launched a series of lab experiments and concluded that the basal ganglia was “central to recalling patterns and acting on them,”  which meant that while the rest of the brain goes to sleep after enough repetitions of an act, the basal ganglia stores them as habits and takes over the process.
The hijacking done by the basal ganglia is the reason why we sometimes find ourselves driving straight home when we actually wanted to make a detour to the store. It is also why we find ourselves halfway through prayer before realizing that we did not actually register what we were doing; the basal ganglia has automated the process!
The Three-Step Loop
According to Charles Duhigg, author of the best-selling book “The Power of Habit”, the automation of the process within our brains occurs in a three-step loop:
Step 1: Cue — a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and informs it of what to do next.
Step 2: Routine — the behavior itself, which can be physical, mental, or emotional.
Step 3: Reward — helps the brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering in the future.
Overtime, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. The brain latches on to a cue and associates it with a corresponding behavior and reward. The cue and reward then become intertwined until the basal ganglia relate them together, creating a powerful sense of anticipation.
Eventually, a habit is born.
The 3-step loop might seem too simplistic to some, but the truth is that the knowledge of the loop is so powerful that huge corporations actually implement it when shaping their products to make us (consumers) addicted to using them.
Nir Eyal, in his book “Hooked”, explains how product makers, through consciously deciding triggers for their users (cue), actions that they want the users to take (routine), and the variable reward that the users will receive (reward), create a product that users cannot help but return to time and again. And we wonder why we are so addicted to the likes of Facebook and Instagram!
So the question is, how can we use the 3-step loop to help us build new habits?
Tip 1: Choose Unavoidable Cues
Instead of creating a fresh cue to trigger your new behavior, try to pinpoint a current habit you already have and make that a trigger to start a new habit.
In practical terms: When I wanted to start on a new set of adhkar to recite every morning, I chose my already existing behavior of reading the Qur’an after Fajr as the cue for reading the adhkar. This way, overtime, it becomes natural for me to just continue my extended dhikr after reciting the Qur’an; I don’t need to rely on additional internal motivation because my cue already exists.
Tip 2: Make the Cues Obvious
To make habit-building even easier, set up your environment in such a way that your cues are highly visible and obvious.
In practical terms: Going back to my new dhikr habit example, how I reduce even more resistance is by placing the phone application I use to store my dhikr right next to my Qur’an application. This way, the moment I close my Qur’an application, the first thing that I see is the dhikr application, my cue to open it and start reading.
Tip 3: Start With the Smallest Behavior (Routine)
One of the biggest hindrances to forming new habits is when our mind starts thinking about the huge effort that we need to exert to complete that specific behaviour. For example, the dhikr recitation habit that I am in the process of building would require at least 30 minutes of my time.
The truth is, sometimes just thinking about having to recite additional adhkar for 30 minutes saps the energy out of me and I start finding excuses to put off building the habit.
In practical terms: Instead of thinking about the entire length of the dhikr, I focus on just completing the first part of the dhikr that would take me approximately 5 minutes. And because of the Zeigarnik Effect (which explains that it is in our human nature to finish what we start), my brain then forces me to continue turning the page until I get to the end. Voilà, 30 minutes down, Alhamdulillah!
Tip 4: Identify A Reward
The fourth tip is to identify a reward for yourself upon completion of your new habit. By doing this, according to Duhigg, you are helping your brain figure out if it is worthwhile to take note of the cue and the expected action to take.
In practical terms: In my dhikr habit example, I identified not one, but two rewards to keep me going. The first reward is the feeling of gratitude for the peaceful state of heart that He promises those who spend time in His remembrance (Qur’an: Chapter 13, Verse 28). The second reward is being able to check off that task in my Habits Tracking application.
By identifying these rewards, I am subconsciously making it easier for my brain to remember that putting the extra effort to inculcate that specific habit will “pay off” in the end.
Bonus Tip 5: Build On Your Keystone Habits First
Duhigg defines a keystone habit as “a behavior or routine that naturally pulls the rest of your life in order”. For some people, it might be exercising, and for others, it might be journalling.
As for us Muslims, the first keystone habit we should work on (if we have yet to do so) is our fardh prayers. Prophet Muhammad reminded us numerous times to guard our prayers, and it is something that we should all work above all else.
Prayer not only teaches us to be disciplined in our actions and to manage our time properly, but more importantly, prayer is a connection between us and our Creator. It also washes away our sins and cleanses our heart, thus making building good habits easier.
A Final Note
To conclude this article, I’d just like to share that I truly understand that building new habits can be hard. I particularly am still struggling to sustain my newly formed dhikr habit to last longer than 20 days; there would always be something (an excuse really) interrupting my flow.
Once, frustrated at my failures to remain constant with my new habits, I complained to Shaykh Yahya Rhodus of my shortcomings and shared how hard I felt it was to change. He flashed a kind smile and said:
“Just pick yourself up, wipe the dust off and move forward. Shaytaan will always place doubt in your hearts, telling you to lose hope and go back to your old ways, especially when you are down. Just ignore him, pick yourself up and keep moving forward (shows action of wiping dust off hands). Don’t dwell. Pick yourself up, and keep moving forward.“
May Allah purify our hearts and beautify our actions, and may He make it easy for us to follow in the footsteps of the most beloved of His creations, Sayyidina Mustafa Rasulillah . Ameen!
The cue-routine-reward process can only be beneficial if you actually apply it. So, now that you know all about it, I’d like you to think of a habit you’ve been struggling to develop, apply the 3-step loop to it, and share the result below!
 Duhigg, Charles. “The Power of Habit” (e-book). Chapter 1, Part 2.